Blood, Brotherhood and the Knuckle-Hop

At the biennial Arctic Winter Games, the Inuit sports can cause competitors to scream in pain

MINIK RASMUSSEN AND HIS TWIN BROTHER, Pilo, sit side by side at the first-aid station, wincing as the medic applies bags of snow to their bloody knuckles. The Greenlandic brothers – identical right down to their sparse mustaches and tattoos – have just been knuckle-hopping. It’s a traditional Inuit sport that mimics the way seals shuffle across the ice, which, for humans, means bouncing forward on knuckles and toes, straight as a plank, until collapsing in agony.

Pilo managed 16 metres; his brother went 25 and earned the bronze. But no matter how far the knuckle-hoppers go – some endure barely a metre – the crowd can’t help but get into it, hollering and whooping like they’re at a horse race. Here at the Arctic Winter Games, this bloodsport is always a favourite.

If it weren’t for the knuckle-hop and a curious array of other distinctively polar contests, the AWG could be any multi-sport competition. It was dreamt up in the late 1960s by a Yukon businessman and the commissioner of the NWT after they’d watched their Northern teams get crushed in Quebec City at the inaugural Canada Winter Games. They agreed that youth living in remote, scattered communities North of Sixty needed their own event on their own turf to play their own sports. And every two years since 1970, circumpolar athletes have been assembling in various Northern cities for just such a competition, not simply in predictable winter sports, like hockey and skiing, but in traditional Dene and, especially, Inuit games – the heart and soul of the AWG.

With tantalizing names like the airplane, the two-foot high-kick and the head pull, the Inuit contests are immediately alluring and usually punishing. Less than a century ago, when Inuit were completely land-dependent, hunters would play these games to keep fit, boost pain-tolerance and simply ease winter boredom. Competitions took place in specially built “tall igloos,” or, come spring, on the land.

Here in Yellowknife, host-city for AWG’s 20th edition, the Inuit-sports venue is an elementary school gym. Aluminum bleachers have been set up along one wall and the school’s championship banners have been covered with the flags of the competing regions: Alaska, the Yukon, NWT, northern Alberta, Nunavut, Nunavik (Arctic Quebec), Greenland, Arctic Scandinavia and Russia’s Yamal region.

Today the big event is the women’s kneel jump. It’s forty-five minutes behind schedule, and the kneel-jumpers are still stretching and giving each other massages while the officials seem busy setting up (even though the event requires no more equipment than a clipboard and masking tape). As the name suggests, the contest involves launching oneself forward as far as possible from a kneeling position. As the first round commences, it’s clear techniques and tricks vary: Some competitors run wet toilet paper along their shins to get the grit off; others use spit. Their attire, too, runs the gamut. Some compete in frayed jean-shorts and floppy hoodies. Eighteen-year-old Marion Green from Paulatuk, NWT, does the kneel jump masked behind huge dark sunglasses, celebrity-style. Body type doesn’t seem to matter. Some of the sinewy gymnasts from northern Alberta have trouble getting off the ground. Meanwhile, the robust Tiffany Clark of Nome, Alaska easily springs three-and-a-half feet and sticks the landing to win gold.

This seems to be true of all the AWG’s Inuit sports: They’re not about the athlete’s gear or their build. They’re about physical and mental grit. For this reason, they’re glorious to watch. And the viewer’s choice – requiring a delicate combination of strength, balance, grace and precision – is the high-kick. After watching 28-year-old Sean Nipisar from Nunavut’s Whale Cove, booting a sealskin ball suspended at ceiling-height seems perfectly reasonable. Nipisar is the obvious front-runner at both the one-foot and two-foot high-kicks (“foot” meaning the body part, not the distance). Tough-looking, with droopy eyes and the nose of a boxer, he can effortlessly vault into the air, jackknife his lanky frame so his toes are above his head, then punt the sealskin ball and land gracefully.

One of the Rasmussen twins doing the two-foot high kick. Photo by Pat Kane

Predictably, Nipisar has made the two-foot finals. Over the course of the evening his competitors slowly fall away and soon he’s the last one standing. It isn’t until the target is raised to the impossible height of eight feet and two inches that he shows his first visible signs of effort. He removes his Winnipeg Jets ballcap and stares at the seal as though praying to it. The crowd hushes to near silence, amplifying the drone of the ventilation system and the relentless beeping of cameras. Unlike the raucous knuckle-hop, the high-kick can be a pretty quiet event. Facing the really tough heights, however, some athletes prompt the audience to clap in unison to pump them up.

When Nipisar falls short on his second attempt, it’s not the spectators that help out, but one of his main challengers. Dave Thomas, a pony-tailed AWG veteran from Alaska, leaps over the partition, whispers advice, pats Nipisar on the back and scurries off. This kind of support, even among rivals, is common at the Inuit contests. “Everyone coaches everyone,” says Candace Parker, an Alaskan coach and former competitor. “The games are more about personal bests rather than beating the other guy.”

After a few false starts, Nipisar misses the target by a hair, flubbing his third and final try. He’s not visibly fazed; he still takes the gold. (Dave Thomas gets the silver and Nunavik’s Alek Airo the bronze.) Nipisar thanks the officials, and his fellow competitors swarm him with high-fives and affectionate shoves.

Over the course of the week, this kind of camaraderie seems to build gradually – perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the endless hours the athletes spend together in tight quarters. Near the end of the week-long competitions the Inuit-sports venue has moved to the local arena to accommodate more spectators. There’s a giddy, expectant air to the place and the athletes are bounding around like kids at summer camp.

While the officials pore over a clipboard of hand-scrawled results, a spontaneous game of the head-pull breaks out in the corner. One of the Greenlandic twins (hard to tell which one) motions to Gary Okheena from Ulukhaktok, a small town on Victoria Island in the NWT. Without saying a word they lie on their stomachs facing each other, with their hands supporting them out front. A wide, slightly stretchy band is placed around both their heads, and when signalled they start pulling back. The hefty Okheena has the advantage and easily tugs the Greenlander across the imaginary line between them.

Despite language and age differences, the young Northerners form a cluster that’s taken on the spirit of a slumber party. A milling ESPN photographer drops to his belly to capture the candid moment, now a sea of reds and blues of the various team uniforms. It’s this mingling among circumpolar cousins that was one of the original intentions of the Arctic Winter Games – to foster a sort of family reunion among geographically isolated, culturally connected Northerners, giving everyone something to feel good about.

Later, at the awards ceremony, Sean Nipisar, the high-kicker, is draped in medals – one gold, one silver and two bronzes. After collecting his final prize he returns to his spot on the floor among his teammates. His young son, big-eared and wiry, runs his little hands over the medals and then starts leap-frogging back and forth over his dad’s outstretched legs. A knuckle-hopper in the making.